Dodging the Bullet

On September 11, 2012, the U.S. Libyan ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. I had hoped that the third presidential debate would have given President Obama the opportunity to resolve the confusion stemming from the conflicting accounts his administration has given about that attack. But Governor Romney did not press the issue at the debate, and President Obama did not clarify why senior members of his administration first attributed the attack to a spontaneous protest while the State Department and the C.I.A. station chief in Libya almost immediately characterized it as an attack by terrorists or militants. This passivity surprised me because one of the most contentious moments of the second presidential debate involved the discrepancies between what the president said about the Benghazi attack and when he said it. During the second debate, President Obama announced that he knew the Benghazi attack was caused by terrorists. He took credit for saying so on September 12, 2012, in a Rose Garden speech. An incredulous Mitt Romney responded, “I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” Obama tersely replied, “Get the transcript.” Well, I got the transcript and I read it. Unfortunately, it’s as clear as muddy water. If the president had wanted to declare the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism, he could have just said so in his September 12 speech. A simple declarative sentence would have sufficed. Instead, his speech is characterized by an artful ambiguity. The president specifically addresses the violence in Benghazi four times. On each occasion, he describes it as an “attack” but not a terrorist attack. He does use the phrase “acts of terror” once, in a generic sense, but he seems to do so in the context of the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in America. Supporters of the president can plausibly argue that he used the words “act of terror” in a speech about the attack on Benghazi. Critics of the president can just as credibly assert that he never specifically characterized this attack as terrorism. Round and around this argument goes until people mournfully remember that four Americans were murdered in this attack. Then it becomes clear that we have a duty to make sense of their tragedy and not play partisan word games about it. Therein lies the rub. Even if we accept the president’s characterization of his September 12 speech, there are still unanswered questions. Why did key members of his administration subsequently blame the Benghazi violence on a spontaneous protest against an offensive anti-Muslim video? Why did the president himself repeatedly focus on the video for almost two weeks following his speech on September 12? Did the government deny the requests of the Libyan ambassador for greater security prior to the attack and, if so, why? Finally, could the government have militarily intervened to save the lives of the four Americans after the Benghazi attack began? I hope there is a perfectly good explanation for all of this. If there is, the president ought to provide it. The irony is that President Obama told CBS News last summer that the biggest mistake of his first term was not being a better storyteller. Obama argued that a president should provide a unifying narrative for the nation, especially in times of trouble. Now, he should stand up and deliver such an account about the Benghazi attack. We have a right to know whether and to what extent this matter went wrong. It is the only way we will ever be able to create order from the chaos and confusion of this national tragedy. Eric Meyers is a two-year Senior from Miami, FL.